Cynthia Ward on “Up in the Air” and Diversity

Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl are guestblogging on Booklifenow this week. Here’s Cynthia’s first solo post.

[SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie Up in the Air, you may want to skip this post.]

I don’t own a television and rarely get to the movies, so I tend to mentally drift into a happy fantasy world, one in which I imagine Hollywood has finally started to reflect the everyday human diversity you find merely by driving off a movie lot onto the L.A. streets.

My fantasy world is not, however, one in which all Hollywood releases have become great works of art. So I’m always pleasantly surprised to encounter an exceptional movie like Up in the Air. You get strong writing, sharp dialogue, superior acting, and even the occasional unpredictable plot twist. You also get timeliness, since its topic is corporate downsizing.

What you don’t get so much is diversity.

I should probably provide some context, because, after all, if the movie were set in Maine, and featured a man driving all over Bangor firing people, no one remotely familiar with the state would be surprised if the guy’s boss and coworkers were all white.

However, given that protagonist Ryan Bingham lives in the Midwest and jets all over the United States firing people, this is a remarkably white movie. His coworkers, his boss, his lover, his siblings, and their friends and families—white. Racial diversity is pretty much confined to the characters being fired, which gives the unfortunate message—oubtless unintentional, but still present—that minorities exist to be fired.

Even worse, the character who reacts most negatively to being fired is a black woman.

While watching Up in the Air, I could just hear the gears grinding in the movie-makers’ heads: “We need to include an important black character. I know! She can be the character who commits suicide and causes one of the main characters to change her life!”

She’s just there to die and change a white character’s life? Well, I will agree that she’s certainly an important—even pivotal—character in Up in the Air. But she’s still a token.

You could even argue that, though this is a mainstream movie with no fantasy elements, she’s just another “magical negro”, present solely to facilitate change in a white character.

How do you avoid tokenism? It’s not terribly complicated. In the case of Up in the Air, it doesn’t even require changing the suicide’s race.

All that’s required in Up in the Air is mixing some diversity into the non-downsized section of the cast. Some nonwhite coworkers would be nice. Bingham’s boss could be African American, or Samoan, or Hispanic; you could make his sister’s fiance’ East Indian or Native American and add some people of color to their wedding guests. You could even make one or both of Ryan’s siblings into non-white adopted sisters.

Even better, you could make one or more of the movie’s three main characters a person or people of color.

Yeah, I know. What a starry-eyed dreamer I am, expecting Hollywood to present an interracial romance in a movie without making that movie about interracial dating. What a happy fantasy world I live in, thinking Hollywood would risk even as little (by its standards) as $25 million (source, Los Angeles Times, ) on a film with a nonwhite male or female lead.

Still, that leaves the third major character, Natalie Keener, “a fresh young Cornell graduate who has recently graduated at the top of her class [and has introduced a software system to] fire people from a remote location over the internet” (Internet Movie Database, ). There’s no reason she couldn’t have been African American.

No reason except, perhaps, that it didn’t occur to those casting the movie that a hotshot computer-savvy Cornell valedictorian could be black.

However, since as a writer reading this you’re probably not casting a Hollywood movie, you’re free to mix it up in ways Hollywood can’t or won’t.

It doesn’t take a lot of work. It just takes a little thought.

And you don’t even need to do that little bit of thinking in your first draft (though it could certainly make your rewriting task easier).

I would love to say that I’m always mindful of diversity in my fiction writing. But, when left to their own devices, my first drafts lapse readily into a remarkably white and straight state.

So I just rewrite. Which I have to do anyway. And so do you.

If you were thinking about seeing Up in the Air, go. It’s a strong movie, one you can simultaneously enjoy as a viewer and learn from as a writer, in its strengths as well as its failure.

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